Thursday, April 17, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Where's PICA?

An editorial in the DN says it's time to get the PICA board set, please:

Where's PICA?

An editorial in the DN says it's time to get the PICA board set, please:

WHEN THE CITY was on the brink of disaster in the early 1990s, the state created an oversight board with the power to issue bonds, as well as to review and approve the city's budget.

Most people would concede that in those early days, the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA) wore the fiscal equivalent of a cape and tights: If it didn't exactly leap tall buildings in a single bound, PICA at least imposed a financial discipline on the city that has allowed the city to avoid the crisis it confronted in the '90s. Key to that discipline is the requirement that the city submit a five-year budget.

With the election of a new governor, the existing PICA board has all but disappeared. So far, only one appointment has been made for a five-member board (there are two ex-officio members).

With the mayor's budget address scheduled for early March, these board slots should be getting high priority.

But we also hope that state officials - including the governor, the House speaker, and House and Senate minority leaders - give priority to the type of board members they're considering for

PICA. The fact is, in these times of economic upheaval, the fiscal oversight of any city should rely more on expertise than on politics. PICA's expertise should be well-rounded, not just in finance, but also in operations, benefits and pensions.

The crisis of the '90s may have passed, but all cities face a slew of big and complicated new problems. Sometimes, the solutions are politically unpopular, like curtailing services or closing facilities. PICA could generate its own analyses of the city's operations, and serve as an independent voice of authority on tough choices the city must make.

The budget is not just a list of numbers that must balance in the end: It's a road map to the city's future. PICA should be vocal about how the city budget might-or might not- serve policy priorities like education, job creation, or economic development.

Further, five-year cycles don't allow flexibility that budget management requires. That means that in practical terms, longer-term budgets can become either obsolete or works of fiction.

PICA made a difference in the city's fiscal crisis, but with a more expert board backing its staff, it could make a bigger difference in the city's long- term future and financial health.

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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